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Morality without Religion, Religion without God

Marc Jampole
May 22, 2015

If It’s Innate, Why Fight It?

by Marc Jampole

From the Spring, 2015 issue of Jewish Currents

Reviewed in this Essay: The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates, by Frans de Waal. W.W. Norton & Co., 2013, 313 pages. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. Vintage, 2013, 528 pages.

Bonobo girlIMAGINE A PASSOVER HAGODE based on the 21st-century situation of many American Jews. Instead of a “wicked son,” Jewish parents have to answer the question of an intellectually curious, university-educated, atheist child: “What does this religion and what do these rituals mean to me, who does not believe a god exists? Why should I have a Jewish wedding, circumcise my male children, send my children to Hebrew school, have them undergo bar/bat mitsve, celebrate the Passover seder, and fast on Yom Kippur?”

Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians face their own versions of this dilemma of enlightenment: the educated child who falls away from religion and, in doing so, also stops performing the rituals that define not only belief but cultural identity. The question goes to the heart of a major trend in world thought since Spinoza: the separation of religion from morality.

One traditional response to the atheist child has been to declare that without religion there is no morality. Without a deity who structures the universe and sets standards of behavior, there is no basis for determining what constitutes right and wrong. We need religion — an organized commitment or devotion to a god or gods and a system of beliefs — to guide our actions if we are to avoid falling into Babel-like relativism, in which any powerful individual or group can enforce its own definitions of right and wrong. From this perspective, religion becomes the very basis of morality and human action. Pascal, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, the Jewish existentialist Lev Shestov, and the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis by no means exhaust the list of western thinkers over the past four hundred years who have made versions of the argument that there can be no morality without religion.

THE PROBLEM WITH CITING MORALITY as the reason to hug the faith, however, is that the educated atheist child has likely read the latest findings of anthropology, which suggest that we share morality with other apes, especially bonobos and chimpanzees, our closest relatives. In The Bonobo and the Atheist, for example, Frans de Waal details many moral behaviors scientists have observed in other primates. Female chimpanzees drag reluctant males towards each other to reconcile after an altercation; high-ranking chimpanzees serve as impartial arbiters in the disputes of others; a chimpanzee risks her own life to save from drowning another chimp unknown to her; for days an adolescent chimpanzee carries around an unrelated baby for an injured mother who is part of his colony; apes open doors so other apes can gain access to food even though it means they’ll get less to eat; capuchin monkeys pick tokens that give food to the whole group over tokens that just reward themselves; primates are happy to receive cucumber slices until researchers “unfairly” give preferred grapes to others; primates take care of the handicapped. The thousands of acts of morality among primates cited by de Waal, Jane Goodall, and other primatologists give strong evidence that the development of morality preceded the development of human religions.

Those who believe that morality requires god and religion were on firmer ground during the last quarter of the 20th century when the “selfish gene” theory predominated. This interpretation of evolution reduces all animal and human behavior to the selfish if unconscious desire of individuals of all species to see their genetic material replicated. Promulgated by George C. Williams, W. D. Hamilton, Richard Dawkins, and others, the selfish gene theory denies any altruistic or moral motive in any animal. In such a universe, one can build a good case that without a god-inspired religion there can be no universal morality, only the custom and fashion created by various cultures, for if moral behavior and altruism are not innate to humans, it is left to a force outside of nature to impose morality on humanity.

But it turns out that the selfish gene theory was more reflective of the dominant ideology of selfishness of that era than it was of human nature or the natural history of humanity. As de Waal details in several of his books, over the past twenty-five years primatologist and ethnologists have uncovered a slew of evidence that indicates that morality exists among other animals, and that it is therefore hardwired into human beings, and not an overlay of civilization or religion.

In the first part of The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt goes further than de Waal in exploring the idea that morality is hardwired into humans. Haidt combines studies of animals and primitives with experiments on groups of humans to postulate that there exist five distinct foundations to morality and moral thought inherent in humans, all of which are in evidence to some degree among primates and other mammals. In the early chapters of the book, Haidt expresses each of the five as a dichotomy of good and bad behavior:

  • care/harm
  • fairness/cheating
  • loyalty/betrayal
  • authority/subversion
  • sanctity/degradation

Haidt shows how each of these foundations of morality evolved in response to an adaptive challenge, e.g., care/harm revolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for the vulnerable young. (Unfortunately, Haidt uses the second half of The Righteous Mind to explicate a bloated theory that liberals are strongly motivated only by two of the five moral foundations — care and fairness — whereas conservatives are concerned about all five. In this supposed focus by the right on all five moral foundations, Haidt finds reason to conclude that conservative arguments resonate more emotionally with the electorate than do liberal ones. But Haidt jury-rigs his argument by accepting conservative definitions of moral terms. Are liberals not invoking “sanctity” when they oppose the destructive hell of war? Are they not expressing “loyalty” when they support those who blow the whistle on unethical behavior by group leaders rather than burying that wrongdoing in the name of the group?)

De Waal suggests that humanity and our predecessors may have taken moral evolution into our own hands. He borrows the argument of anthropologist Chris Boehm, who postulates that over time, groups of humans may have eliminated many of those most prone to rape, murder, cheat and commit other anti-social behavior by imprisoning, executing, or banishing them, all of which impede procreation. What we’re talking about is not any millennium-long program of eugenics, but the adaptive superiority of civilized behavior once humans formed large groups. While blackguards still exist, there are fewer of them. A decades-long experiment that involved mating the tamest of every successive generation of wolf in a forest reserve reinforces the possibility of humanity controlling the evolution of morality: within fifty to sixty years, the wolves began to resemble dogs.

ONCE SCIENCE EXTRICATES MORALITY FROM RELIGION, the atheist child can readily reject a traditional religion such as Judaism for its legacy of discrimination against women and gays, its harsh, sanctioning god, its hundreds of rules restricting daily life, and its “chosen people” brand of tribalism.

But what science takes away, it may also give back. The need for religion may, in fact, also be hardwired in humans.

In The Bonobo and the Atheist, de Waal reviews the possible origins of religion and finds traces of all of them in the behavior of other mammals:

  • The fear of death: The reaction of apes to death resembles that of humans. Mother apes have been seen trying to reanimate their dead offspring. All apes attend to the dead much as humans do, with touching, washing, anointing, and grooming. Elephants pass the bones of a dead herd member from trunk to trunk and return to the spot where a relative died for years after.
  • Attempts to control nature: Anthropologists have observed chimps doing rain dances to make the rain stop and then performing the same kind of dance when they encounter a waterfall. Jane Goodall wonders if these behaviors could through repetition become ritual and then religion, while de Waal speculates that apes think they can affect nature through the dance.
  • Superstition: Science provides us with many examples of animals manifesting what we can interpret as superstitious behavior; for example, cats that scratch the couch and dogs that turn in circles because they think that the action will get them fed.
  • Visions appearing during states of intoxication: University of California-Berkeley anthropologist Robert Dudley and others have observed that monkeys in the wild enjoy getting intoxicated on fermented liquids found in overripe fruit.

Keep in mind that virtually every human culture in recorded history has had a religion, further suggesting that the need for religion is hardwired into humans. But whereas we have enough evidence to demonstrate that primates feel or understand morality, at this point we cannot yet say the same thing about religion with absolute certainty.

THERE IS, HOWEVER, ENOUGH EVIDENCE about proto-religious activity in animals to start a conversation with the atheist child. Let’s assume that the parent is also an atheist, but one who loves the Jewish traditions and admires other religions for inspiring believers to do good deeds. I would begin my amicus brief in favor of retaining religious traditions by detailing some of what we know about religious or pre-religious behavior in other mammals, and invite a dialogue as to what the adaptive advantages of religion might be.

I would start by pointing out that many people need a religion to face death or to give structure to their lives. For example, a rabbi of a synagogue to which I once belonged was also a professor of mathematics at a local university. He told me that he loved the Torah and the many rabbinical interpretations because all the laws and customs contained therein told him exactly what to do. He didn’t have to think about any action. I imagine Pascal finding such joyful freedom from decision-making after he had his night of revelation and left science for a very restrictive form of Catholicism.

While agreeing with your atheist child that atheism may be a more rational approach to life than belief in a deity, I would offer the possibility that since religion is likely hardwired in humans, his or her children may turn out to be people whose lives will gain meaning from religion. If they don’t grow up in the Jewish faith, the child predisposed to religion may select a different religion, something that even the most secular and atheistic of Jews usually consider anathema. If, on the other hand, the children don’t have a predisposition to religious belief, if raised as Jews they will more likely embrace an atheism imbued with Judaism — a culture with many humanistic elements worth preserving.

The second adaptive feature of religion I would cite is that it gives people a reason to identify with each other and join together to form cooperative groups. Both the beliefs and traditions of a religion create continuity between generations.

Your atheist child may accurately note that through the millennia, groups have used religion to justify wars, enslavement and other forms of violence against other humans. In the 21st century, however, religion’s organizing principle often works to counter the pernicious effects of nationalism by presenting a broader, more ecumenical view that leads to political and social engagement for both progressive and rightwing causes. Nation states — another of the great organizers of individuals into groups — use nationalism as the rationale for wars that typically only serve the interests of a narrow ruling elite. Religious faith, by contrast, motivates many civil rights, environmental, social justice, anti-poverty, anti-hunger and anti-war activists, even as many opponents to the rights of women and sexual minorities also invoke religion to justify their oppressive views.

The practice of religion — as opposed to its belief system — consists of not just rituals, but narratives, too. These narratives, myths to the nonbeliever, often organize the religion’s view of world history, and can thus mislead. But writers, visual artists, dancers, and musicians have built an enormous and growing oeuvre of great art by retelling, renewing and referencing religious stories and images. Select any character important to Jewish mythology and you will find a cornucopia of wonderful paintings, graphic art, sculptures, short stories, plays, poems, novels, ballets, and movies about him or her. Religion helps to organize the cultural language and therefore enrich and deepen the insights of both mass entertainment and high art.

Another adaptive feature of religions — that is, another mechanism by which religion helps our species survive and thrive — is that it organizes and gives meaning to the passage of time. The beginning of planting, the end of the harvest, the coldest point in winter, the rise and fall of the moon — religion imbues meaning into all of these naturally reoccurring phenomena by which humans count their lives. Whether Rosh Hashone in the fall, Pesakh in the spring or Khanike in the dead of winter, Jewish holidays reflect the cycle of nature. Life also consists of a series of one-time events, such as birth, attainment of adulthood, selection of a mate and death, which religion also imbues with meaning and organizes through ritual.

The final adaptive feature I find in religion is as an enforcer of morality, but it is the weakest argument to be made for the evolutionary advantages of religion for the very reason that we have found many more signs of morality in other mammals than we have of religion. We don’t need religion to live in a moral world.

But we don’t need morality to make the case for religion. As an organizer of groups of humans, of human cultural experience, and of the passage of time, and as a raison d’être for many if not most people, religion offers numerous advantages to the species and to the individuals who practice one or another of the world’s religions.

It is at this point that I would end my argument advocating that my atheist son raise his family with Jewish rituals and storytelling. I would advocate a non-sexist and progressive Judaism dedicated to peace, an equitable distribution of wealth, and a guaranteed standard of living for all people. I would not, however, attempt to persuade my atheist child of the superiority of Judaism to other religions. Only a god with an interest in what happens on Earth would or could select one people as having special moral rights or responsibilities. The Jewish people have our share of villains: slave owners, financiers of slave states, amoral generals, apologists for dictators, factotums to royalty, union busters, and promulgators of falsehoods. I would instead propose Judaism to an atheist child as the religion and culture of our family, and focus on the progressive version of the religion.

I would close my case for religion, and specifically Judaism, by admitting that while a belief in god may not resonate with us — meaning myself and my educated atheist child — we can still benefit from religion. For many of those we love, it offers a reason to live and a guide for actions. For all of us, including the atheist, it organizes our world and our lives, and helps to make life interesting, even if it can never control us. It brings together our families, our peoples and the family of man. It exhorts us to accept our responsibility to care for the real world and all the creatures in it. It reminds us that wherever our scientific investigations take us, we remain human beings.

Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer who runs Jampole Communications, a public relations and communications firm in Pittsburgh. He blogs several times a week at OpEdge.